Inter-subject comparability: continuing the debate

I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the inter-subject comparability conference that Ofqual held last week (4 February). I want to do so for two reasons. The first is to capture some of the vibrant discussion that we enjoyed during the day.

But, perhaps more importantly, I want to provide reassurance in light of an article in the TES today that we are not about to make any immediate changes in this area; the conference was purely an initial conversation and an opportunity to hear a number of perspectives on a debate that has existed for decades. This is the continuation of that debate, not the end of one. As well as the reporter from TES, we welcomed subject experts, school representatives and university representatives to the conference where they were all able to discuss this very complex topic and hear from others. Indeed most of the people quoted in the TES article were in attendance. We listened to their views first-hand and encourage anyone with a view to respond to our online survey.

I must emphasise that we did not ‘propose’ to do anything to address inter-subject comparability. The conference was a figurative finger to test the wind. It was another part of the debate and along with the survey - launched in December and open until 4 March - we used the event to gather more information on the feeling of the education community and to help us understand more about the different views that exist. All the presentations given on the day of the conference are available to view and I urge you look at them and understand the wider issue for yourself.

It would be easy to latch onto one small element of research and draw definitive conclusions. This would be a mistake; we are engaged in a conversation that seeks to explore options with the sector to reach a judgement.

It was abundantly clear, as it has been for decades, that there is no clear consensus on a definition of inter-subject comparability, let alone an agreement on whether such a thing is desirable. This was underlined by Ofqual’s Paul Newton and Dennis Opposs, who explored the very idea of subject comparability and some of the data that could be used to inform the debate. They presented some possible choices and explained the benefits and shortcomings of each proposal. Unsurprisingly, given how long debate has continued in this area, there is no clear cut solution. This sense of a ‘best compromise’ was well illustrated by contributions from international colleagues.

What was clear, however, was that using a statistically driven model did not necessarily capture the nuances of the issue. Statistics do not capture the motivation of students, the length of study, the quality of teaching or a whole range of other factors. And reliance on statistics to drive inter-subject grade comparability could introduce some unwelcome and dramatic changes to outcomes in some subjects, to which the TES alluded in its article.

In conversation, there was no real sense that this was desirable, even supposing a judgement could be made about comparability. As someone said at the conference, even the thought of getting subject leaders in Chemistry and French in a room together to agree the relative demands of their subject is enough to give you a headache!

Changes are not being ‘proposed’ they were talked about simply as part of an extremely wide-ranging discussion on an incredibly complex issue.

There were some very insightful contributions from subject experts, who provided perspectives on modern foreign languages, the sciences and English. We heard about the ‘unhelpful language of difficulty’ that can shape the choices made by students. We also heard from linguists about the importance of ensuring that exams provide the correct ranking of students and an appropriate number of the highest grades for candidates. These are issues that have been the subject of significant work by Ofqual which we are continuing in the run up to awarding this summer.

Again, I strongly encourage you to read the information we have made available, such as our original news story, our infographic, and the working papers. You can even watch a short introductory video. These provide a fascinating background to a complicated subject. We are at a very early stage, one at which we are looking at whether anything should be done just as much as we are looking at what could be done, and we want to know what you think.

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